Chorusing: Half Mirror | ★★★½ [Western Vinyl; August 13]
It’s easy to get lost in the synthesizers when it comes to Matt O’Connell. My first encounter with him was when he was a member of his brother Joe’s band, Elephant Micah, for whom he created a custom synth called The Mutant on their 2018 album Genericana.
In the early 2010s, he worked at Moog, building synths and testing chips. And “Watching the Beams,” the lead single of his new album as Chorusing, Half Mirror, centers on another custom synth he calls Balsam. Its eerie, minor-key arpeggiations evoke the theme music from Stranger Things as O’Connell’s singing wobbles gradually into existence, an aqueous blur.
When the drum machine and bassline enter at the halfway point, you’d be excused in thinking this was some new cold wave group. “You’re being eclipsed” is one of the few comprehensible lyrics in the song. Its video, which traverses an endless series of starkly lit, empty subway cars, only drives home the feeling of synthetic, collapsing emptiness.
But that single is a bit of red herring. While O’Connell uses synthesizers somewhere on pretty much every song, his actual goals here lie elsewhere, in a capacious brand of folk that’s not too far removed from what his brother Joe does in Elephant Micah.
Over a backing of gently strummed guitars, reverb-drenched leads, and, yes, synth washes, O’Connell uses his reedy tenor to recall fragments of his past: a curative escape to the mountains, a moment of revelry on the banks of the Ohio River, or the feeling of stepping into cold water.
Thus, the album’s connective tissue is the distinctive way all the sounds reverberate through its sonic architecture. There’s the gauzy reverb on the lead guitar in “Whitewaterside” that pulls at the steady heartbeat synth pulses crafting some intricate dome that expands endlessly upwards. Or the nacreous synth chord pillars that wobble around O’Connell as he describes falling asleep to the sound of someone else’s breath in “Billowing.”
He always prioritizes space and emptiness, which lends that much more definition to the sounds that are there, especially as each song/space smears into the next. In that context, the claustrophobic subway cars of “Watching the Beams” make sense next to the endlessly bending and looping guitar sounds. Each is a different, imperfectly recalled memory given shape by the moment it is recalled.
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